Dance is a career that seems to be aimed at the young. Little ones start as early as three years old with dreams of twirling onstage, and a career is often thought to “fade out” around their mid-30s. But there can be something beautifully unique about dancers who continue to perform in their “later” years, with life experiences and perhaps even parenthood adding to their art.
The National Ballet of Canada’s Xiao Nan Yu is one such artist. Born in China, she followed her dream to dance and arrived in Canada on her own as a teenager, not speaking a word of English. She trained at Canada’s National Ballet School and joined the company in 1996. During her time with the company, Yu met her husband and became mother to two children, while still performing lead roles and gracefully balancing her career and family life. Now, this June, Yu will retire from the stage, after 22 years with The National Ballet of Canada. Her final performance will be in one of career signature roles, Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow.
“I have experienced every emotion on my journey with the National Ballet,” Yu tells Dance Informa. “In my first few seasons, I laughed, I cried, I was sad. I felt all the human emotions that can be experienced. Above all, I was so grateful for the opportunities that were given to me and to dance.”
Yu reflects on her arrival to Canada as a young teenager, not knowing any English or much about the area. She recalls being picked up at the airport by a staff member from Canada’s National Ballet School, who held a sign depicting a pointe shoe so she would know where to go. The transition was full of the unknown, was scary, perhaps lonely. But at the same time, Yu says that the time was a thrilling one for her, with not knowing what may lay ahead in her journey and the thought of exciting opportunities to come.
She completed her training at the School and joined The National Ballet of Canada. And Toronto became her home. “Over time, I fell in love with the city while dancing with the company,” she says. “I love the multiculturalism of the city and everything it has to offer for so many communities.”
And soon, she was becoming at home on stage in the National Ballet. At the young age of 20, when she was just a member of the corps de ballet, Yu was cast in her first principal role in a full-length ballet, for James Kudelka’s Swan Lake. “I had very little time to learn the part but was thrilled to be given the chance,” she shares. “Eventually, artistic directors began to trust me to take on more and more principal roles. It was through their trust and confidence in me that I was able to develop my own confidence in my own abilities and performances and grew stronger as a performer.”
She has danced principal roles in dozens of classical and contemporary works in the company’s repertoire: Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Onegin, The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle,The Nutcracker, Cinderella, Serenade, Apollo, The Four Temperaments and many, many more. In 2009, Yu won the Outstanding Profile – Arts, and Best of the Best Awards at the Mandarin Profile Awards in Toronto. In 2018, she was the recipient of the Rolex Dancers First Award for her role as Paulina in The Winter’s Tale.
And perhaps one of the most major roles Yu has taken on during her time with The National Ballet of Canada is that of mother of two daughters, now 14 and seven years old.
“They’ve told me that they will miss seeing me on stage,” Yu reveals. “Juggling motherhood and my profession is no different from other working mothers; it’s not unique to just the world of dance. I try to do the best I can to focus on my time wherever I am. At work and in the rehearsal studio, time is precious and is spent concentrating on my rehearsals, performances and what I need to get through each day. When I’m at home, it’s all about my family, and I try not to have any work distractions.”
At the age of 41, Yu is still at the top of her game. But she is choosing now to retire. “At present, I feel like I am at the highest point in my career,” she says. “It is very important to me that my lasting memory as a dancer is one when I am at my strongest physically, as well as most comfortable and confident as a performer. What I want to leave behind in memory is my strength and capability, and to finish my career on a high note, while I am still at my very best.”
Yu’s final bow will be as the title character of Hanna Glawari in Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow, which will round out the company’s 2018/19 season, running June 19-23, at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. She says the role has been a favorite during her career, one that helped define her professional life.
“It’s a heartwarming, grandiose, glamorous and celebratory ballet with a happy ending that is a lot of fun to perform,” Yu explains. “The ballet showcases the title role’s maturity and confidence, and it matches where I am in my own life right now. It seemed like a perfect fit to bid farewell.”
Yu is excited for what’s to come after her final curtain call. For so long, she says, life has been ballet, and while ballet has taught her determination, dedication and passion, she is looking forward to taking time to decide what to pursue next. Of course, she hopes to stay connected to the ballet world, passing on her experience and knowledge to the next generation of dancers.
While the Toronto audiences will surely be sad to see Yu move on, Yu seems to feel at peace with where she has come and when she is making the choice to depart the stage.
“For dancers who want to feel satisfied in their careers, the greatest advice that I can provide, based on my own experiences, is to learn to let things go,” Yu expresses. “At some point, despite all the corrections given, you must focus your energy on dancing for the audience from your heart. My satisfaction comes from treasuring these magical onstage moments – it’s what makes all the training, classes and rehearsals worth it.”
Xiao Nan Yu’s final performances will be in The National Ballet of Canada’s The Merry Widow, to be presented June 19-23, at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. For tickets and more information, visit national.ballet.ca/Productions/2018-19-Season/The-Merry-Widow.
By Laura Di Orio of Dance Informa.